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Abraham Lincoln's seamstress, Elizabeth Keckley.
Abraham Lincoln's seamstress, Elizabeth Keckley.

She stitched her way out of slavery and into the White House. Where’s her movie? Add to ...

She was the Jason Wu of her time.

In Lincoln, Steven Spielberg’s historical drama, which is up for 12 Academy Awards on Sunday night, there is a minor character, Elizabeth Keckley (played by Gloria Reuben), whose story could have been a film in itself. Born a slave, she became the modiste (or dressmaker) to Mary Todd Lincoln while she was first lady. But Keckley’s story is not just one of creative genius. It involved sheer force of will, business savvy, courage, compassion and, ultimately, national scandal.

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While relegated to the sidelines in Lincoln, Keckley is the subject of several new dramatic interpretations. Tazewell Thompson’s Mary T. & Lizzy K., a play by that examines the unlikely friendship between Keckley and her employer, opens next month in Washington. She figures in A Civil War Christmas, a recent play by Pulitzer-Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel. And last month saw the publication of Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker, a sweeping historical novel by Jennifer Chiaverini that fleshes out the intimate relationship between the two women in the White House and in the tragic years after the president’s assassination, when Mary Lincoln became increasingly erratic, fell into debt and called upon Keckley for help – a chain of events that left the reputations of both women in shreds.

Born in Virginia in 1818, Keckley was sired by her white master, a fact that her mother only revealed on her deathbed. Taught to read by her mother, who was (unusually for the time) literate, she was strong-willed from an early age, vowing never to cry when she was beaten. She bore a son (conceived by rape) and set off for St. Louis, where she used her dressmaking skills to buy freedom for herself and her son at a cost of $1,200 in 1852, a huge sum at the time.

Divorced after an eight-year marriage, Keckley relocated to Washington in 1860, just before Lincoln’s election; she earned a reputation as a skilled seamstress of the mantua, a popular style of dress featuring elbow-length cuffed sleeves, a close-fitting bodice (requiring tiny, interlocking stitches to withstand strain and prevent gaping) and a skirt, worn over hoops, that could require as much as 25 metres of fabric. Keckley came to the attention of the first lady soon after she took up residence in the White House in 1861.

Mary Lincoln was nervous about how she would be perceived in Washington – some people gossiped about her as a vulgar rube from Springfield, Ill. – and she came to rely on Keckley, who stitched up her patron’s shaky confidence by overseeing her image, arranging her hair (often accented with flower garlands) and fashioning the most beautiful dresses of her career. In the spring of 1861, she sewed more than 15 gowns for the first lady, who preferred to wear white but also chose pink, crimson, yellow, deep purple and royal blue for her gowns, which she asked to be designed with a low neckline to show off her neck and shoulders.

Such was Keckley’s place as dressmaker and confidante in the private lives of the Lincolns that the president asked her to attend to his unruly hair. A frequent visitor to the White House, she witnessed the behind-the-scenes domestic lives of the first family through tumultuous periods of history and also personal tragedy, including the death in 1862 of their son Willie, 11, from typhoid fever. The loss of another son – their four-year-old secondborn, Eddie, had died in 1850 – caused great anguish for Mary Lincoln, who suffered bouts of severe emotional instability.

It was Keckley whom Mary Lincoln reportedly summoned first upon the killing of her husband in 1865. Later, during preparations to leave Washington, she presented Keckley with the bonnet and blood-stained cloak she had worn to Ford’s Theatre, where he was shot. She also gave her the president’s overshoes and the comb and brush she had used to tame his hair.

But the story of compassionate support did not end well. As a widow, Mary Lincoln, who had often been criticized for being a spendthrift, fell into debt. In the fall of 1867, she summoned Keckley to meet her in New York, where she planned to sell some of her clothing and possessions under an assumed name. But the story soon broke in the newspapers, where it became known as “Mrs. Lincoln’s Old Clothes Scandal.” Both women were widely disparaged.

Matters worsened in 1868 with the release of Keckley’s memoir, Behind The Scenes: Or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House, which she wrote in an effort to rehabilitate Mrs. Lincoln’s reputation. All it served to do, though, was heap more criticism on Keckley for violating privacy boundaries.

The relationship that flourished in the intimacy of the dressing room never recovered.

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